Are Arsenal’s players really more prone to injuries?
This article was originally posted in October 2014, but seemed pertinent in light of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain’s and Theo Walcott’s sustained injuries against Sheffield Wednesday, which has left Arsenal’s first team squad exposed. That follows seemingly insignificant revelations that Arsenal’s injury list has been so extensive under Arsene Wenger that Arsenal physio Colin Lewin has not had a day off since 2005.
First team players currently injured are: Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck, Tomas Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey, David Ospina, Mikel Arteta, Walcott and Chamberlain.
There are ways of maintaining the physical well being of players in the modern game- appropriate rest, intricate and targeted training programmes, effective fixture management. However, there’s no doubting that some players are simply more injury prone than others, and the cause of their injuries can be a result of something completely uncontrollable.
But just how big a part ‘luck plays’ at Arsenal is interesting. Consider this. Of the data available on transfermarkt (granted, not a hugely reliable source, but one that does give a fairly valid overview of players’ injury) evidence suggests players are more prone to injury at Arsenal than they are at any time other time in their career.
For instance, transfermarkt tells us that Cesc Fabregas missed 42 days in three seasons at Barcelona, yet in the same time missed 299 at Arsenal. Mesut Ozil only missed 34 days in his 5 seasons at Real Madrid and Werder Bremen, yet looks set to be out for a projected 118 days after just a season and a half. Lukas Podolski missed 74 days in three seasons with Koln, and has been out for 117 days in two seasons at Arsenal.
The red bar illustrates the annual % of days missed at Arsenal, and the green bar represents the % number of days missed annually at a previous or future club. The data is consistent, but for Per Mertesacker, who evidently has played more constantly since moving from Bremen. So on average, Fabregas was injured for 27% of a season, Ozil 23%, Podolski and Samir Nasri 16%, Gael Clichy 12%, Gervinho 6% and Alex Song 5, while correspondingly, Fabregas was only absent for 4% of the time at Barca, Podolski 7% at Koln, and Nasri 4% at Manchester City. Gervinho, Song and Clichy have all not recorded an injury at their new clubs. On a side note, this data also excludes Theo Walcott (who’s been out since January) because the majority of his career has been spent at Arsenal and he may genuinely be injury prone, while Olivier Giroud (who’s out until the new year) had no reliable data available on his time at Montpellier. There’s no point even discussing Abou Diaby.
While you might still be able to maintain that injuries are an issue of luck, and this information is a product of repeated anomalies, perhaps Wenger’s overall setup makes his players more vulnerable to long term physical damage. If Arsenal get to the latter stages of the League and FA cup, and also manage a decent Champions League run, they’ll be playing around 60 matches a season- which equates to three games a week. If a season of that intensity follows or is predated by an international summer tournament (which is applicable to a majority of Arsenal’s squad), then there is no physical let off over extended periods of time.
Fixture intensity is a more profound point in light of Wenger’s plight to play high tempo football, which is sometimes not only exhausting in games, but makes training more draining, too. The regular counter-approach when playing against Arsenal usually corresponds to a hard-tackling, aggressive outlet, which can lead to some career-endangering encounters which can have long lasting physical ramifications. (See Diaby, Eduardo and Ramsay, respectively). But more abstractly, playing possession football means that you’re holding the ball for longer periods of time, simply allowing your opponent more opportunities per game to inflict a damaging blow.
Furthermore, in order to operate Wenger’s passing-philosophy, his squad will largely consist of small-ish, nimble technicians. Usually these players need to be explosive in short spaces, and lots of quick changes of direction exacerbates stresses on muscles, ligaments and bones. High tempo, possession football isn’t entirely conducive to a larger injury list, but it may contribute over a 60 game season.
Squad management is then perhaps the final key, something that can be difficult to manage properly in the depths of March when the really competitive matches of major trophies are contended. Wenger has perhaps been under greater pressure than any manager in England in the last decade to win a trophy, which has definitely compromised his decisions to rest players returning from injuries in the past. Last season, for instance, Walcott was injured for a month, was given 4 minor substitution appearances totaling 60 minutes in his recovery, and then played five 90 minute games in 16 days. He’s been injured since.
The information available suggests that Arsenal’s injury problems are the result of something greater than continuous miss fortune. Arsenal have changed physio, trainers and tweaked their style over the years; Wenger remains the only common denominator in that time. Squad rotation, playing style or player personnel? All contribute, and when those three combine throughout a physically-intene-fixture-ridden season, luck is likely to go against you.
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